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Thu, Feb. 27

The art of low-care landscapes

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could enjoy an attractive, colorful garden without spending all of your free time working at it? Well, it can be done - all it takes is a bit of homework before you plant and some knowledge about the right plants. Combined with a few of my tips, tricks and techniques, you'll save time and some money as well.

The five cardinal principles listed here, in order of importance, will help you to reach your low- to no-maintenance landscape goals.

1. Choose plants that are known to be reliable and problem-free for your area, and varieties that won't outgrow the spaces where you've planted them.

2. Reduce the size of your lawn or eliminate it entirely.

3. Prepare the soil well before planting so plants get a strong start.

4. Mulch to reduce weeds and use soil moist polymers to conserve soil moisture.

5. Install an automatic clock to run your drip irrigation lines.

Right plant, right place:

Considering the bewildering array of plants available at garden centers, choosing the best plants will require a little help. Start by making a list of plants you like, or look around the neighborhood for interesting options. Consult gardening books, magazine articles and the web to learn about the plants on your list. Rely on the staff of your favorite garden center to learn whether the plants you're considering are suited to local growing conditions.

A common mistake is to choose plants that look just right on planting day, and then rapidly outgrow their spaces, creating a maintenance headache. Unlike an interior design that looks best the day it is installed, a landscape design should be planned to look its best several years later.

Look for compact varieties of plants. For instance, many traditional favorites, such as spirea, spruce, and butterfly bush, are now available in compact forms that are much more likely to suit the scale of today's smaller gardens. Most often these plants have part of their name in single quotes. Examples of compact plants are 'Goldflame' spirea, dwarf 'Serbian' spruce, 'Indigo Blue' butterfly bush and dwarf 'Yetti' hawthorn.

Named varieties offer resistance to pests and diseases that plague the common species. Examples include 'Prairifire' crabapple, which is resistant to both apple scab and fire blight, and 'Knockout' rose, which is rarely troubled by black spot, a common rose disease. Choosing disease resistant varieties will result in fewer pests, and ultimately this translates into less time spent in maintenance and care.

Consider using dwarf varieties of plants. Some dwarf conifers, such as 'Bird's Nest' spruce, grow very slowly, as little as an inch per year. Slow growing plants are more expensive initially because a plant that is only 4 to 6 feet tall may be 10 to 15 years old. Growers have invested as much time and materials in these plants as in those that are much larger but much younger. The extra initial cost for dwarf varieties pays off over time because such plants need minimal, if any, pruning.

Some practicalities:

Even if plants require only minimal maintenance, water and fertilizer are still essential. A drip-irrigation system on a timer eliminates the need to stand in the yard with a hose to water plants. Since most of the water goes underground, drip irrigation really cuts down on water bills and weed growth, particularly in dry summer climates.

Reduce water use even more by amending your plants with "Soil-Moist Polymers." These little white crystals hold 200-300 times their weight in water and keep the soil moist at the root zone of each plant. Polymers are so effective that they can cut water use in half. For gardeners who like to travel, polymers can make the difference between returning home to a vibrant, healthy plant, and one that either is stressed out or has died while the owner was away.

Amending the planting hole with an organic planting mix or homemade compost will provide just the boost new plants need. To make fertilizing a snap, use granular organic plant foods that feed for several months, and are safer than synthetic fertilizers.

There's no trick to proper plant spacing. If a plant's mature width is 3 feet, it needs about half that distance all the way around. But if your plants are slow growing, or you want them to merge their growth, space them slightly closer together. In ground covers this technique also serves to minimize weeds.

Mulch is a very effective weed deterrent. In a mulched bed, if a weed sprouts, it is very easy to pull out, roots and all. Spread a 2-3" inch layer of shredded bark between plants. Shredded bark, as opposed to nuggets, chips and rock, provides the best coverage and, in my opinion, looks the best. Mulch adds organic matter to the soil as it breaks down, and it also shades the soil in summer and insulates it in winter. Put a fresh layer down each spring with a light top dressing at the beginning of the season.

So there you have it. You really almost can ignore your garden and have an enjoyable area, too.

For specific plant suggestions stop by the garden center and ask for my printed list of "Mountain-Friendly Plants."


Garden class update: My free summer gardening classes begin next Saturday at 9:30 am. This first session is "Reducing Water Use in the Yard." The season's schedule has been posted at

Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.

Ken Lain says, "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden smarter and get our local garden timing right." Throughout the week, Ken can be found at Watters Garden Center, located at 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, or contact him through his website at

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